STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Building racial equity through business. It's all about #TheShift

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
The Mosby's, in their Palace.

"Used to be a church right here," Jamiel Robinson says, nodding toward a storefront on South Division in Grand Rapids. 

"Yeah?" I say, eyeing the business. "Now they do tattoos. Ain’t the same at all."

"It’s not the same."

We're standing at the corner of Division and McConnell. Next to us is a gray, boarded up building Robinson’s grandfather once owned. It had a barbershop, a candy store, a pool hall and apartments upstairs. But it was old and needed repairs. In 2005, Robinson’s family sold it.

Then the building boom in the area happened.  

"We got a new school directly across the street,"Robinson says. Behind the building is the new Downtown Market and new condos. "And just knowing that the property value has increased tremendously has been really tough to watch."

This building - it’s personal for Robinson. But it’s happening all over the city. The economy in Grand Rapids is growing, just not for African Americans. Incomes for black residents have dropped since 2009, according to the Census. Median household income for African Americans in Grand Rapids is less than half what it is for whites.

That is what Jamiel Robinson is trying to fix. His idea: more black business owners .

So we go someplace else, and Robinson introduces me to this guy:

"My name is Brian Mosby," he says "And this is Mosby’s Gourmet Popcorn Palace."

Behind him stands just a wall of popcorn, in flavors I never even imagined - birthday cake, blueberry, loaded baked potato.

Mosby’s is a member of the organization Robinson created, called Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses.

So, I kind of sit back, and listen to the two of them talk about how to grow the number of black businesses in Grand Rapids and build lasting wealth. Mosby starts:

"I don't know if it's a color thing, or if it's a socio-economic thing or whatever the case may be, but yeah I've been denied loans, SBA loans and every other way I could possibly think of getting started."

  "We have to think bigger first, work together secondly, and then own multiple corridor sections of businesses," he says. "And that way we can start to create wealth in more ways than just one. You’re not going to get rich in just one way. We have to be creative, and we have to work hard and we have to work together."

"This is your third business," Robinson starts. "One of the most prevalent barriers that impedes African Americans from starting businesses is the access to capital ... So  is there an access issue?

"For me personally, that’s my number one issue," Mosby answers. "I don’t know if it’s a color thing, or if it’s a socio-economic thing or whatever the case may be, but yeah I’ve been denied loans, SBA loans and every other way I could possibly think of getting started."

Getting startup money, is a challenge for all business owners. But especially black business owners. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal did an analysis of loans backed by the U.S.  Small Business administration. Only 1.7% of the total amount awarded went to black business owners.

Lots of entrepreneurs get around the issue of funding through personal connections - like a rich aunt or uncle. But in a city where more than 40 percent of African Americans live below the poverty line, Robinson points out, rich aunts are hard to come by.

And that’s what he’s trying to change with Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. It’s a change he calls The Shift.

So The Shift is us increasing the number of African American businesses, through that, decreasing the unemployment rate, through that, decreasing the poverty rate. At the end of the day, we’re looking to improve the quality of life for African American families.

The Shift is something Robinson is hoping to see in Grand Rapids. But it’s an idea that’s not limited to one place. It’s racial justice through entrepreneurship. Through ownership. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.